Eye on Theatre: Bad Behavior By John Simon

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Simon_John Catchme_poster Genius, of course, is best, but it is also extremely rare. In our time, in the field of musical comedy, only Stephen Sondheim certifiably has it. Talent, though, is plentiful. The creators of the musical Catch Me If You Can—based on Steven Spielberg’s movie based, in turn, on the true story of Frank W. Abagdale’s youthful illegal exploits—had a good story to work with, and did yeoman’s work. But genius it is not.

Terrence McNally has proved himself successful both at straight plays and musical books. Mark Shaiman—composer, lyricist, orchestrator, arranger—has a long list of stage, screen and TV work to his credit. His partner, lyricist Scott Wittman, has a goodly number of them, too, their biggest joint success being Hairspray. The director, Jack O’Brien, has staged several outstanding musicals and plays, here and in England, including opera at the Metropolitan. Jerry Mitchell’s credits as both choreographer and sometimes director are international and profuse.


Aaron Tveit an the cast of Catch Me If You Can

Notable talents in themselves, these men have dazzled as a team. Although Shaiman’s score in this instance could have used more tunefulness, they have not been slouches here either, though the problem was that the well-remembered movie could do things that no stage show can.

Frank Abagdale, Jr. was a conman extraordinaire. As a teenager already, he passed himself off in various prestigious capacities, bamboozling the world as supposed commercial pilot, physician (despite inability to look at blood), Harvard-trained lawyer, and even, after much womanizing, to obtain parental permission to marry their daughter, Brenda Strong—as Lutheran. He was especially good at passing rubber checks the world over, adding up to millions, partly through infectious charm.


Aaron Tveit and the ladies of the cast of Catch Me If You Can.

Much of this was more cinematic than feasibly theatrical, even if chorines do appear as India ink bottles, glue pots, and such. Still, much is accomplished by David Rockwell’s simple but clever scenery, basing much on a unit set representing something like a white, Miami-architecture hotel front, with a middle-high platform reachable by curving stairways right and left.

Behind this is the enjoyably visible orchestra, energetically led by John McDaniel. Sometimes backed up by garlands of drapes or colored streamers from above, and often rising from or sinking below stage level along with bits of furniture, there is the gifted cast. Devastatingly charming is Aaron Tveit’s Frank, Jr., an all-around talent, with the excellent Norman Leo Butz, as Hanraty of the FBI, his relentless, often bumbling but intermittently menacing pursuer, whose very rolling walk is a work of art. No less effective is Tom Wopat, as Frank, Sr., his son’s jovial mentor in crime.

Rachel de Benedet, a delightful actress seldom given her due, is winning as Frank,Jr.’s  French mother, but Kerry Butler, as his future bride, Brenda Strong, is less appealing than in previous roles. As her oddball parents, however, Nick Wyman and Linda Hart, etch expert vignettes. Lesser parts are competently handled, and the singing and dancing, in ever-changing outfits, couldn’t be more up to snuff.

William Ivey Long’s costumes have the proper pizzazz where needed, but can also be properly glum for the FBI men. Kenneth Posner’s lighting shuttles blithely between the gaudily multicolored and the dramatically stark. And Jack O’Brien’s staging is constantly animated and resourceful, rich intricks such as a chorus line rising from below stage level dancing feet first. My final verdict is artistry 7, razzmatazz 10—dependably satisfying if less than transcendent.

MotherFuxxckerInAHat Stephen Adly Guirgis’s  The Motherf—ker With the Hat is one of those lowlife comedy-dramas about drug addicts, ex-convicts out on probation, adulterers, in-fighters and bad friends that have become the LAByrinth Company’s stock-in-trade. Todd Rosenthal’s urban-glut setting, Mimi O’Donnell’s no-account costumes, and Donald Holder’s flat lighting supply the requisite grunge.

The cast—an impassioned Bobby Cannavale, a cool Chris Rock, his desperate wife Annabella Sciorra, a druggy Elizabeth Rodriguez, and Yul Vasquez as sardonically obliging as cheerfully murderous—are all on target, and  Anna D. Shapiro’s direction revels in the dependably dirty and periodically pathetic doings.
What Guirgis supplies in abundance is fast, furious, and sometimes funny dialogue, and a flood of f-words, simple and composite, undreamt-of even by the previous champion, David Mamet. It is not my sort of thing, but the audience with which I saw it was stentorian in every variety of human and animal noise. Alone the fellow behind me, steadily clapping and guffawing, was a serious assault on my eardrums. 

Photos by and courtesy of Joan Marcus.

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a  PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.

To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

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eHeziEye on Theatre: Bad Behavior By John Simon

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